It was Sergey Bubka who made it his business to push the pole vault world record bit by bit. The Ukrainian could not be touched at his prime in the 1980s and 1990s, and would have kept raising the record for fun some more but for ankle trouble pushing him into retirement.
It made great business sense to chip away at it. It kept the sponsors happy and the bank account kept bulging with bonuses, one landed with every world record.
Bubka was a phenomenon, and had a demoralising effect on his rivals, who often gave up early during his prime in the 1980s and 1990s.
Now, for the sheer incredulity that Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana spread among fellow runners and experts alike while crushing the field and the world record to win the women’s 10,000m at the Rio Olympics on Friday, she has a true predecessor.
At the 1980 Moscow Games, her compatriot Miruts Yifter too dominated the 10,000m to such an extent that the late Eamonn Coghlan of Ireland, a subsequent world champion, summed it up beautifully. “Miruts was there till the last lap, he then got on a bike and pedalled away.”
Ayana got into an F1 car than a bike, the way she sped away to victory in Rio. Running the distance only in her first season, the 5,000m specialist crushed the field, bettering the world record by a whopping 14.33 seconds and dragging the first four under 30 minutes.
Someone forgot to tell Ayana that Usain Bolt was the star and he didn’t start till a day later. Even if Bolt betters his world records in the 100m and 200m, the Ethiopian’s run will be discussed for years.
Ayana clocked 29 minutes, 17.45 seconds, winning by well over 100m from her nearest rival. It put to shade the mark of China’s Wang Junxia in 1993. She was one of the brightest from the stable of coach Ma Junren, although records by his wards are viewed with the same deep suspicion as records set in the 1980s by runners, especially women, from Czechoslovakia and East Germany. Doping is the common thread which linked both as they set the track on fire.
The current atmosphere is particularly heavy with suspicion after the ban on Russia for doping. Even Kenya and Ethiopia, until a few years ago seen as unbeatable simply because of altitude and their genes, have come under the scanner.
Ayana’s run is as jaw-dropping as that of Bob Beamon, when his leap at the 1968 Olympics took the world record from 8.35m to 8.90m. The rarefied atmosphere in Mexico City, which is in altitude, and a freakish jump was all attributed for that attempt. The mark stood for 23 years, until Mike Powell broke it.
Bolt’s current marks in the 100m and 200m, set in the 2009 World Championships, too pushed the frontier. He bettered his record to 9.58 seconds from 9.69sec in the 100m and lowered the 200m by 0.11 seconds, clocking 19.19sec to better his 19.30 set while winning the gold in the Beijing Games a year earlier.
Bubka broke the world record the most number of times. He broke the outdoor record 17 times, 14 times in a row when he took the mark from 5.94m to 6.14m. The record was finally bettered by Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie, after 20 years, when he cleared 6.16m in 2014.
Bubka also improved the indoor record 18 times, moving it from 5.94m to 6.15m between 1986 and 1993. Lavillenie again it was who broke that record too, setting the current record of 6.16m two years ago.
Ayana’s timing has been dubbed outrageous. Experts will wait to see if she can anywhere match the race she ran on Friday. The runner herself was quite ready for the question.
She said: “My doping is my training, my doping is Jesus – otherwise I’m crystal clear.”
The jury is out.